Tag Archives: Cuba

The cyberwar continues

Two weeks ago, AP’s Desmond Butler obtained copies of several reports filed by USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on his ultimately ill-fated “tech support” mission to Cuba and wrote a long piece detailing his findings. Gross is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba after being found guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” for bringing a large amount of tech equipment into Cuba without obtaining authorization to do so.

According to Butler, Gross coordinated the transport of “12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches” from the US into Cuba. All told, these numbers are substantial—I have to imagine that immigration authorities in any country would look on such actions suspiciously. Only an extreme few would go so far as to call this a threat to national sovereignty. But this is Cuba—and Gross was sent there by the US government.

The reports also describe the lengths Gross went to in trying to cover his tracks. In the eyes of the Cuban government, Gross’ good intentions of bringing technology to a needy community were irrelevant: he was bringing in communications technologies that are highly contested in Cuba, and are increasingly characterized as “weapons” in the ideological war against the US.

I believe that increasing Cubans’ access to technology has become vital to civil society on the island, but Gross’ experience has shown that US-based organizations, particularly those receiving public funds, must find a new and more transparent way to approach this kind of work.

While the case has brought a terrible set back to US-Cuba relations on a number of levels, it also has coincided with an increasingly belligerent conceptualization of the Internet and social media in official discourse.

While authorities there have rarely lauded the Internet as a space of information exchange and connection, over the last year there has been a noticeable hardening of official rhetoric about the web. In press statements, “leaked” videos, and television news programs, the Internet has been portrayed as a space of conflict, an ideological battlefield where the “ciberguerra” being fought is simply a virtual rendition of the “war” in which Cuba and the US have been engaged since 1961. I imagine that many Cubans, particularly those living outside the capitol, have been introduced to the Internet in this way. And I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept many of these ideas as fact.

I had held out hope that Cuba’s fiber optic cable would bring some degree of change to the nature of Internet use for at least some Internet users on the island. But we haven’t heard an official peep about that cable since March of 2011—just days after Gross’ trial.

The covert nature of his mission, to which the reports attest, does little but reinforce the idea that ICTs are a new, powerful weapon in the ideological battle between Cuba and the United States. This nasty paradigm has dominated relations between the two countries for decades; perhaps the Internet piece of it is simply a new iteration of the same argument. But it’s upsetting. There have been moments of progress in US-Cuba relations in recent years, many of which have been associated with family relations as well as cultural and scholarly exchange. Fundamentally, these moments have reflected the importance of connection and mutual understanding across borders. The potential for the Internet to allow Cubans and Americans to build on these kinds of connections is immeasurable. But I’m not sure what it will take for Cuban leaders to begin to see it this way.

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In Cuba, art is a public good (but the Internet will have to wait)

In addition to triggering the greatest civic hell-raising in Internet history and inspiring numerous nonsensical quips about Latin cuisine and Kate Middleton’s younger sister, the SOPA/PIPA laws have touched a nerve in Cuba’s digital community. Bloggers from a diverse range of political perspectives are interpreting the proposed legislation not merely as a law on piracy, but as a powerful statement about how the US values culture and creativity as part of society.

Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula’s post on SOPA was particularly moving. She wrote of the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload, which took place shortly after Wednesday’s Internet blackout, describing the event as follows:

“‘The bad guys,’ those who wield freedom as a paradigm, with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the also alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.”

Note: the freedom-wielding “bad guys” are U.S. officials who plead for reforms in Cuba by offering the (perhaps empty-seeming) promise of the inherent good that democratic values could bring to the island. She continued:

“The issue is extremely complicated for me, a semi-surfer from a semi-connected country. I assume that the technologies have developed faster than the copyright laws and I assume that these illegal downloads don’t affect the artists themselves so much, as it geometrically multiplies the distribution of their work (provided there is no plagiarism and credit is given) as a form of advertising.

It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. I don’t consider myself an elitist or an expert; the simple perception of success and popularity reveals very aggressive publicity campaigns. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.”

Coyula makes two very important points: first, file-sharing sites provide something akin to a public good—they benefit people who otherwise cannot access or afford their contents in other ways. Second, these are laws that ostensibly favor commercial interests over the cultural commons and the “gift economy” in which art is created, re-created, and circulated. Most Cubans writing on the issue agreed on this point, and reason for this seems clear: in Cuba, culture has been legally enshrined as a public good since the triumph of the revolution.

In 1961, the revolutionary government made a bold, robust commitment to supporting artists and writers and making art accessible for all Cubans. While this wrought bitter controversies over what it meant for artists to join their fellow citizens in the trenches of an ideological war, it also led to the creation of a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions that remains highly active today. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture is not a privilege of the upper classes—it’s a right that all Cubans share.

Yet most Cubans are far worse off than any American when it comes to accessing information and media online. There, the Internet remains a battlefield, a contested space where government authorities and the official press denounce the United States’ cyberwar on Cuba, and the boundless universe of culture and knowledge online is scarcely mentioned. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use presumably in order to dampen the effects of political speech and economic activity online—they feel they must control such activity in order to preserve the socialist project.

If things had played out differently last week, and SOPA/PIPA were looking inevitable for us, we would have to get used to the idea of our government that limiting Internet use in order to placate content (music and film) industries. SOPA or not, we are far better off than Cubans when it comes to Internet use. But the question of what motivates our government to limit the Internet is still worth earnest consideration: are we a society that is okay with commercial interests trumping those of public goods? Congress may be, but last week’s uproar suggested that millions of us are not. I hope people are willing to keep sending this message to Congress, because it may take more than an Internet blackout to truly win this one.

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Filed under Art community, Blogs out of Cuba, Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Free isn’t easy

As I study Internet use and human rights in different parts of the world, I am routinely struck by how difficult it is to make speech truly “free,” even when policymakers and citizens seem to agree that this is a good choice.

Last spring I wrote about a video interview conducted by journalist and fellow blogger Tracey Eaton with John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for developing respectful diplomatic and political relationships between the US and communist/post-communist countries.

"Your URL is blocked!" Screenshot by tonystl. CC BY-ND.

McAuliff spoke of how we must understand rights not as static illustrations of what is good or moral, but rather as products of history. As he spoke to Eaton about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, he invoked the Civil Rights movement in the US, pointing out  that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society. He said to Eaton:

“If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.”

Many of us think of free speech as an unquestionable good—it sits at the level of ethics or morals and it seems indestructible as an idea. But clearly it’s not. Yesterday, Global Voices, Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites participated in a strike in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two very bad pieces of anti-piracy legislation in the House and Senate. If passed, these bills could severely hinder free speech and innovation online, in the name of protecting copyright holders. I think it’s fair to say that since the First Amendment was written, lawyers, policymakers, and the US judicial system have worked very hard to interpret, protect, and apply this law as time has worn on and technology has evolved. We have come a long way. But the bills currently in Congress show that we may still have a long way to go.

As I juxtapose SOPA and Cuba’s limitations on free speech, it may sound like I’m comparing apples and mangoes—on several levels, this is true. But my point is that high-level political rights don’t come easy, and that even when you have these rights, you have to work hard to uphold them. For Cuba, it is hard to imagine when free (or even free-er) speech will become a possibility. The good news for people in many other parts of the world is that we have the power to act in support of good laws. If you vote in the US, and you want the Internet to stay open and free, visit americancensorship.org and give Congress a piece of your mind.

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Filed under Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

After Fidel?

I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.

What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.

Photo by Leon Kasparov, CC BY-NC-SA

Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.

I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:

“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”

So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.

I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that  his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.

And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.

*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.

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All politics are local, and maybe personal too

When I met Roger, a blogger and IT specialist in Cuba, we sat and talked in a little park in Old Havana and then walked down Calle Obispo, a bustling commercial walking street. A man called out to Roger and he recognized him immediately. They hugged and talked and Roger gave him his phone number. They made plans to get together later in the week. We said goodbye, and continued walking.

“He’s an old friend,” he said to me. “He went to Germany six years ago. This is the first time I’ve seen him since. But then we got in touch on Facebook last year.” Roger talked about how for his entire life, when friends left the island, it was as if they had disappeared or died.

“You would expect never to hear from them or see them again,” he told me. This has been a common experience of Cubans for many generations. But it has begun to change as Cubans have gained more opportunities to communicate online. Friends who had “disappeared” suddenly have begun to reappear as Cubans on and off the island have built (or re-built) their social and familial connections, often with the help of social networking platforms. Roger was not the only Cuban person who told me stories of using social media to reconnect, and in some cases reconcile political differences, with friends and family members who have emigrated or sought exile to other countries.

There is no question that while Facebook remains inaccessible for most Cubans, it is another example of how technology is helping to repair connections between people on and off the island. While it’s often exagerrated in popular rhetoric, Cuba’s isolation from much of the world, and particularly the US, has had a powerful impact not only on the nation’s economy, but also on its social fabric. This has, in turn, impacted public sentiment about Cuba in a powerful way.

As families and friends find more ways to communicate and reconnect, this eventually reverberates within a broader discussion about policy, particularly in places like Miami. I understand that this isn’t seen as being important in way that the critical blogosphere is, but I think it deserves to be included in the broader discussion about how new media is impacting change in Cuban communities, both on and off the island.

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This Cold War isn’t over yet

This week on Global Voices I interviewed Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger who recently began the Cuba Money Project, a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on ‘pro-democracy’ programs in Cuba.

I focused on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel, a telling archive of interviews that Eaton has conducted with people on all sides of the opposition movement, both in Cuba in the US. The interviews defy the common assumption that there is a single narrative, or a black and white, to the relationship between Cuba and the US today. Cubans that Eaton interviews express a diverse range of emotions about politics on the island—there is frustration, ire, ambivalence, and among some, fervent support for the revolutionary government.

Tracey Eaton interviewing a man in Baracoa, Cuba. Posted with permission of Eaton.

¿Cambio con qué?

In practice, the majority of these funds are allotted for opposition groups, but the range of recipients is impressive—on one end of the spectrum, there are initiatives to support important causes like LGBT rights and benefits for the physically disabled, and on the other, there are Miami-based groups manufacturing condoms with the word “cambio” (change) printed on them and shipping them off the Cuba.

In another example, a youth group in Havana received help from a USAID subcontractor to organize a rap concert. I question the value of this. Scholars like Sujatha Fernandes have done well to document the political role of rap and hip-hop in Cuban society, which the government has come to accept and sometimes support since the late 1990s. In brief, she argues that these art forms function as a socio-political “release valve” or space where Cuban youth can express and share their frustrations through music, rather than through much more dangerous and controversial activities of political demonstration.

My sense overall is that some of the programs that USAID funds are fine, and probably providing much-needed resources to Cubans. Others are misguided, and reflect a significant lack of understanding of life on the island. But all of these are overshadowed by the funds allocated to opposition groups.

What is certain, and what Eaton’s research speaks to, is that programs funded by the US in Cuba are politically untenable from the start. In most (if not all) cases, it is illegal under Cuban law for Cubans to accept financial support from US government agencies, because this money is seen as a means of supporting subversive activity on the island. Government agencies can say all they want about helping Cubans to “freely determine their own future,” but the fact is that these programs have not changed very much since their express, stated purpose was to undermine the Castro government. In Cuba, ‘pro-democracy’ is just another way of saying ‘counterrevolutionary.’

“Rights come out of histories”

One of the most powerful commentaries in the Cuba Money Project interviews comes from John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending the embargo. McAuliff, who has worked on issues related to US-Cuba relations for over twenty years, seems to be one of few voices on the US side that understands what it may take for the relationship between the two countries to change.

[The US] seems to insist on [carrying out programs that provoke] the most basic nationalist reaction…[this] discredits the US, discredits the Cubans who work with the US…[And these programs] are tied with the legitimate Cuban suspicion that US policy is still grounded in an effort to create system change if not regime change in Cuba.

“Rights come out of histories,” McAuliff says. He talks about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, and invokes the Civil Rights movement in the US, calling on viewers to think about how strange it is that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society.

If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.

Eaton asks McAuliff how the US should proceed. We must begin, McAuliff says, by respecting Cuban sovereignty, no matter how strongly we disagree with Cuban law and policy.

You have to do it starting on the premise of their history and respecting who they are. […] [The US] has to say, ‘we’re not going to put programs in your country unless you find them acceptable.’

Opposition support as political discrimination

I can’t overstate the irony here: the supporters of these programs are desperately seeking ways to funnel money to Cuban dissidents, while we simultaneously cling to a failed trade embargo that makes it impossible for most Americans to spend any money in Cuba at all.

If we really want to help Cubans “freely determine their own future,” we may need to take the long road and find a way to lift the trade embargo. This would drastically impact the Cuban economy and the ability of all Cubans to access capital, goods, and technological tools. Right now, by sending money and supplies only to those who are openly involved in opposition work, we are stoking the anger of the Cuban government, and simultaneously carrying out a policy of discrimination.

What of those Cubans who simply want better lives? Or those who want information technologies because they want to learn more about the world, or to share information with one another? It seems unfair, and politically ignorant, to focus our efforts on a marginal sector of the population that has never been able to consolidate broad support on the island.

This would take time, but it would bring change to Cuba in a way that ‘pro-democracy’ programs never will. The US Congress should find a way to shift its focus from politics to policy: discontinue programs that send money to Cuba in violation of Cuban law, and lift the trade embargo. Then we just might be looking at a clean slate.

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The digital mirror

A few weeks ago, I was asked by an expert on international Internet policy to describe what I think are the biggest threats to freedom of expression online in the region. While I have a well-rehearsed set of talking points on the particular situation in Cuba, Latin America is different, and very difficult to conceptualize as a region when it comes to Internet policy. So I rattled off whatever was circling around in my brain at the time—threats of violence against journalists, laws that can be used to limit expression, and the lurking, ever-present, and impossible to quantify “self-censorship.”

One of the reasons that Latin America (perhaps with the exception of Cuba) is often left out of the conversation about Internet policy and freedom of expression online is that it’s a region where technical filtering is pretty rare. This is a good thing. Yet in many countries, freedom of expression online is nevertheless very much at risk.

Internet cafe in San Jose del Pacifico, Oaxaca. I checked my email and then took this photograph.

In Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, escalating levels of violence and organized crime have made violent threats against journalists and bloggers commonplace. In communities where rather than Spanish, K’iche, Quechua, or Aymara* are the most commonly spoken languages, online content is often inaccessible because of language barriers. And throughout Latin America, levels of Internet accessibility match the glaring unevenness of economic development in the region: every megalopolis is saturated with WiFi, Internet cafes, and soaring cell phone towers while rural areas are left wireless, literally.

Not surprisingly, the conversation about free expression online in Latin America tends to focus on Cuba and Venezuela, two countries that explicitly limit expression within their legal codes. They form an obvious (though certainly necessary) target because the laws are concrete—it is clear to advocates of Internet freedom what needs to be changed. But in the examples above, the root causes are much broader, and some are deeply entrenched in histories that began centuries before the Cuban revolution. How does one build a framework for improving freedom of expression online when it is directly tied to a drug war, chronic underdevelopment, or the marginalization of indigenous communities in a region that is linguistically dominated by the language of an old empire?

Of course I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I want to begin thinking about them as legitimate queries within the larger tech-and-society conversation about international freedom of expression on the Internet. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Cuba that can inform how we think about Internet policy in other national contexts, it is that national identity, ideology, and economic and political structure are the root determinants of the life of the Internet in any society—to look at a country’s Internet policy is often like holding a mirror to its political identity. This is all to say that in the cases of many Latin American countries, I think it is time to take a closer look.

 

*While language barriers are far from overcome, there are many great online projects devoted to increasing indigenous language content online. One example is the Global Voices Bolivia team, which is making great strides with the GV Aymara page.

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